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Charlotte's Web

The truth gets murky in the real-life story of a cross-dresser who survived the Nazis, the communists, and other haters.

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Let God and man decree

Laws for themselves and not for me . . .

I, a stranger and afraid

In a world I never made.

--A.E. Housman, Last Poems

If Charlotte von Mahlsdorf hadn't existed some writer would have had to invent her. Born Lothar Berfelde in 1928, the transgendered Charlotte never surgically changed her sex, but she defied convention by wearing women's clothes. That would have been tough enough for anyone of her generation, but Charlotte was a German living through the most turbulent era of her country's history. In her 1992 autobiography, Ich bin meine eigene Frau, her condition as a woman trapped in a male body makes a perfect symbol for the soul of the German people, imprisoned by a series of brutal regimes.

Charlotte was the quintessential survivor. According to her book, she beat her abusive father to death with a kitchen utensil in an act of "preventive self-defense." She made it through air raids, deportations, jail, Nazi oppression, the ruin of Berlin by Russian invaders, and the tyranny of communism. She lived openly as a "sexual intermediary," thanks in large part to the childhood influence of a cross-dressing lesbian aunt who shared with Charlotte her hidden copy of Die Transvestit, by the Alfred Kinsey of his day, Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld. (His groundbreaking archives were destroyed when the Nazis came to power, and Hirschfeld died in exile.) With the approval of the East German government, Charlotte established the Grunderzeit Museum, a mansion furnished a la 1900. In the basement was a replication of the Mulackritze, a Weimar-era cabaret and sex club once patronized by Marlene Dietrich and Bertolt Brecht. In 1992, after the reunification of Germany, Charlotte was awarded the state's Order of Merit for her work as a cultural conservator, and her memoir ends on a triumphant note: "I am an optimist. I believe in the triumph of goodness even if it is sometimes slow in coming."

If Charlotte hadn't existed some writer would have had to invent her. And in a way, some writer did: Charlotte herself. Just how much of her story was fabricated became a matter of dispute after Ich bin meine eigene Frau was published. The collapse of eastern European communism exposed a treasure trove of hidden history in the form of dossiers compiled by the KGB and East Germany's secret police. Charlotte's file identified her as an informant whose reports led to the imprisonment of at least one of her associates--Alfred Kirschner, a fellow antiques collector and sometime lover arrested for black-market dealings with American soldiers.

Charlotte's explanations were at odds with the information in her file, but no accounts could be deemed reliable. Her reputation clouded by controversy, she died in 2002. A year later playwright Doug Wright and director Moises Kaufman unveiled their play about her, I Am My Own Wife. Workshopped here by About Face Theatre at the Museum of Contemporary Art, it went on to Broadway and won a Pulitzer and the Tony award for best play; now it's returned to Chicago for a run at the Goodman Theatre.

Kaufman and Wright have demonstrated in past work their fascination with enigmatic figures on the edges of homosexual life. Wright's Quills dramatized the imprisonment of the Marquis de Sade; Kaufman's credits as a writer-director include Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and The Laramie Project, an exploration of the 1998 murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard and its aftermath. All three works cut through cliches and the usual presumptions. In Wright's account de Sade--a philosopher and proselytizer for individual rights as well as a sexual torturer--is as much martyr as madman, and Kaufman ruminates on the extent to which Wilde and Shepard recklessly brought their tragedies upon themselves. As in Gross Indecency, produced by Court Theatre in 1998, the issue in I Am My Own Wife is not "truth" or "lies" but conflicting truths. If Charlotte did indeed have a sordid past as an informer, why call attention to herself with a book? And why would she collaborate with Wright, giving extensive interviews for a stage biography? Was she a true innocent, a harmless old tranny granny, or a conscienceless collaborator determined to survive at the cost of others' lives? Or was she mentally ill, as one psychiatrist opines in the play, spinning her tales as "reassurance to the chaos in her psyche"?

I Am My Own Wife is all the more intriguing for being inconclusive. As a performance event it's nothing short of riveting. Its focus is Wright's own relationship with Charlotte--his transformation from adoring fan to perplexed chronicler of her public downfall. One man plays both Wright and Charlotte--the brilliant Jefferson Mays, whose emotional, gestural, and vocal precision represent the pinnacle of the actor's art (and won him the 2004 best-actor Tony). Costumed by designer Janice Pytel in a plain black dress, string of pearls, and orthopedic shoes, Mays transforms himself with quicksilver fluidity from Charlotte, with her stiff gait and thick accent, into Wright, with his effeminate southern drawl. Mays also portrays a slew of secondary characters, including a smug TV interviewer and a gauntlet of hostile reporters. As Kaufman proved last month in his staging of One Arm for About Face at Steppenwolf, he's a superb director with a keen eye for stage imagery and nuanced acting.

But Mays's virtuosic portrayals wouldn't matter if his central role, Charlotte, weren't such a compelling creation. At first she's charming and seemingly transparent, talking to her interviewer--and the audience--with deadpan straightforwardness while fingering her antique curios and playing her beloved 1920s jazz on an old-fashioned gramophone. "I remember 1945 like it was only yesterday, but if you ask me, 'What did you have for breakfast?' I don't know!" she says, regaling us with tales of narrow escapes from SS officers and Russian invaders and her forays into the gay underworld of train stations and "tearooms" (public lavatories). Yet the more time we spend with Charlotte, the more elusive she becomes; the more we know about her, the less we know her. Charlotte reminds me of the gay English humorist Quentin Crisp, whose dandyish effeminacy, accented by thick makeup and lavender cotton-candy hair, is a sort of mirror image of Charlotte's hausfrau dowdiness. Beneath Crisp's flamboyance lay a deep emotional detachment. Mays's Charlotte conveys the same self-protective isolation, as if a wall had been erected in response to the experience of living as a stranger in a world not of one's making.

When: Through 2/20: Wed 7:30 PM, Thu 2 and 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 and 7:30 PM

Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn

Price: $20-$60

Info: 312-443-3800 (TTY 312-443-3829)

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.

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